Arsenal, their academy and why young players are rarely getting a first-team chance

Arsenal’s trajectory in recent years is impressive.

They have progressed from a side that missed out on European qualification entirely when finishing eighth in 2020-21 to one proving their worth in successive title races against the juggernaut that is Manchester City.

Not much has gone wrong in that time. Their first-team squad-building has been effective and they have continued to evolve as a group, even if is disappointing they have so far been unable to end their 20-year wait for a Premier League triumph.

However, how they bring academy graduates into the first team appears to be one area of stagnation.

Although Arsenal’s squad was the fourth-youngest team on average in the Premier League last season (25.1 years), opportunities have not been easy to come by for those stepping up from the youth ranks of late.

The club fielded just two players aged 21 or younger in the league last season, and one of those was Bukayo Saka, who has 226 appearances for Arsenal and 36 England caps, and turned 22 on September 5). The other was Ethan Nwaneri, then 16 and now 17, who played once, as a late substitute in February’s 6-0 win against West Ham.

Manchester City’s number of players aged 21 or younger who appeared in the 2023-24 Premier League was six, and they played 3,999 minutes compared to Arsenal’s 372 (Saka’s 359 in the four matches before his birthday, plus that one Nwaneri cameo).

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Opportunities for the club’s academy graduates was a discussion point throughout last season, with its knock-on effects reported on by The Athletic in January.

Now, with a host of youngsters’ departures from the club becoming official, The Athletic revisits the issue of Arsenal and academy pathways to the first team.

Context is key. Arsenal are in a position as a club they have not been in for two decades and have reached this point via a core of young players who have grown up together. With their progress has come an expectation to challenge at the top of the Premier League that is felt by manager Mikel Arteta.

The chances of an academy player breaking through at any Premier League club are already slim, but when the stakes are as high as they have been at Arsenal recently, that becomes tougher. They recognised that when The Athletic reported that Amario Cozier-Duberry would leave when his contract expired at the end of June, with it having become harder for academy graduates to bridge the gap, considering the increased quality of the first team.

Even so, for a club whose history is entwined with success stories from the youth setup, the lack of chances provided for the generation to come through behind Saka’s is a concern.

Players’ development can plateau, as being considered good enough for a place on the first-team bench often means they miss actual game time with the under-21s, which can become detrimental over a period of weeks if they aren’t getting minutes for the first team either. It also means Arsenal struggle to command decent fees in the long term for those who do leave, which could help them generate much more revenue.

Many under-21 players have been named on the bench in recent seasons without going on to get first-team minutes.

Reuell Walters, who also left this summer, was an unused substitute 21 times.

Omari Hutchinson, who helped Ipswich Town win Premier League promotion on loan from Chelsea, was an unused first-team substitute nine times in the 2021-22 season, his last with Arsenal.

Charlie Patino scored on his debut, one of seven given to academy graduates by Arteta, against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup that December but was limited to eight games as an unused substitute after a sub-par performance in the FA Cup away to Nottingham Forest a few weeks later.

Over the years, Arteta has had these (and more) youngsters on the bench in matches where Arsenal have had four and five-goal leads. Yet none were called upon, to the point where a first-team substitute place loses its meaning because the intent to play them does not appear to be there.

Nwaneri’s appearance against West Ham was impressive, but he came on when Arsenal were six goals up. And even then, Arteta admitted after the match that it was the senior players who convinced him to make the substitution. The game came just over a month before Nwaneri’s 17th birthday, the point at which he would become eligible for a professional contract.

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Ethan Nwaneri making his sole appearance for Arsenal last season (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

Arsenal being geared towards competing for the title and the Champions League has not only hindered academy graduates now looking to make their first impressions in senior football.

Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah, all homegrown, have become fringe players for Arteta, despite having clear talent to offer. Nketiah started the most league games of the trio last season (10), largely due to fellow forward Gabriel Jesus’ injuries, while Smith Rowe (three starts) and Nelson (one) were used more fleetingly. Smith Rowe and Nelson had injuries to overcome themselves, but were fit for most of the season.

That said, Arsenal can point to the fact only four clubs used more academy graduates than they did last season (five) and all finished below them, but of those Saka is the only one used regularly.

The most damning example of opportunities coming and going for these players came in the spring.

Smith Rowe won man of the match in his first start for two months at home against Luton Town on April 3, but was then an unused substitute in the next two matches (Brighton & Hove Albion and Bayern Munich) before being brought on for an injured Martin Odegaard with 10 minutes to go against Aston Villa on April 14, which finished in a 2-0 defeat for Arsenal.

Momentum was gathered against Luton, but then quickly lost in the two weeks that followed.

Even if players are not in the long-term plans, finding a better way to manage their minutes could help generate a larger transfer fee if/when they are sold. The argument can be made that the chances those young players did get were not taken as well as they were by Leandro Trossard. He was Arsenal’s second-most used substitute in the league last season (16 times) and scored six goals when coming off the bench, eventually taking Gabriel Martinelli’s starting spot.

That efficiency is worth its weight in gold when the margins in a title race are so small (two points), which means minutes have to be earned rather than given. The demands are simply different to those five years ago, or even when Arsene Wenger would flood the pitch with youngsters in the years Arsenal’s priority was Champions League qualification.

The sporadic offering of first-team action can have knock-on effects, however, as uncertainty can grow.

While promises regarding game time are not the way forward, clarity helps people in all walks of life. In football, that can come in the shape of opportunities and communication but also a clear understanding of a plan for a player’s development.

Arsenal shifted their strategy with contracts as the 2010s came to a close.

Focus turned to cutting costs, a task which fell to negotiator Huss Fahmy and was most evident in the departures of Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil from the first-team squad, but also had knock-on effects further down. That restructuring filtered through to the academy in a move which would give Arsenal more power and less financial strain.

It is partly why their inability to sell young players for significant profit compared to their rivals has not hurt the club to the point where they have to be creative regarding the game’s profit and sustainability rules (PSR). Without an outstanding need for pure profit from the sales of academy players over a period of years, there is naturally less pressure to make money off those who do depart. However, that can create room for complacency to build.

Players’ first professional contracts often take care of themselves, as most are happy to sign and get their foot in the door at age 17. More care is required from that point to ensure a talented player is willing to accept a second professional deal (at 19 or 20). At that stage of a career, the plan for the player’s development holds the most importance. The final destination for an Arsenal youngster does not have to be Arsenal’s first team, but a first team.

Although it would not be as easy now Arsenal are a Champions League club again, that trajectory could look similar to Folarin Balogun’s recent one. The now 22-year-old striker was given his debut in the 2020-21 Europa League before signing his second professional deal, had loans with Middlesbrough of the second-tier Championship and Reims in France’s top flight, and was then sold in a £34million ($43m) deal last summer to Monaco, also of Ligue 1, having made 10 Arsenal appearances, two of them starts, totalling 209 minutes of game time.



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In regards to Cozier-Duberry and Walters, Arsenal’s position is that there was a belief both could have made an impact on the first team in time. Both were initially offered contracts during last summer and at the start of the 2023-24 season respectively, but the development plan was not felt to be effectively communicated alongside those offers by those involved.

Arsenal hoped to find loan destinations for them in January and the club believe a clear pathway did exist for those players, but their contracts being unresolved at that point made the possibility moot. From a club perspective, it also makes providing opportunities for a player who could leave the club permanently in another six months less appealing.

Both players and others then spent the rest of the season playing under-21s football, which they had already got their use out of.

It’s important to say such situations do not only play out at Arsenal, but that does not mean they cannot be dealt with better.

Other clubs’ academies do not guarantee first-team football, but it appears the development plan is laid out more effectively. Rather than the focus being on chasing that dream, the clubs who operate well in this regard prioritise preparing players for senior football as a whole.

Even though Hutchinson’s summer 2022 move across London to Chelsea surprised most at the time, they had a track record of producing professionals who either make their first team or were sold to respected Premier League or Championship clubs. As mentioned, Hutchinson spent last season on loan at Ipswich and joined them permanently this summer in a deal worth £20million plus £2.5m in add-ons and a 20 per cent sell-on.

Arsenal did make some profit from this deal, having inserted a sell-on clause of between 15 and 20 per cent into the deal when he joined Chelsea, but there is no doubt which club benefited most financially from Hutchinson’s career path. Similarly, Arsenal view their role in Auston Trusty’s route to English football as a success (signing him from fellow Kronke Sports Entertainment-owned club Colarado Rapids, loaning him to Birmingham City and selling to Sheffield United for £5m.

How often Arsenal enter the transfer market is also a factor.

There are signings that need to be made to improve the first team’s chances of winning, such as those of Jesus and Declan Rice. But against those signings, there are also examples such as Marquinhos and Fabio Vieira, who have failed to make an impression while also clogging up the pathway for youngsters already on the books.

Not every signing will be a success, and some big buys will take time to acclimatise, as Kai Havertz did last season. But the recruitment of players who are similar in profile, and come with the weight of a hefty price tag rather than through the ranks, can undermine the work of the academy.

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Even players at Eddie Nketiah’s level struggled for minutes last season (Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images)

The situation whereby Cozier-Duberry, Walters and others leave for a compensation figure, rather than a higher transfer fee further down the line after little exposure (either in an Arsenal shirt or out on loan) cannot remain the norm. The infrastructure to build players’ readiness for senior football needs to be clearer. The debate about the quality of Arsenal’s academy players could be valid, but the true answer will not be realised until chances are provided.

Rather than allowing players to get to a January without clarity on the next six months of their careers, the challenge is to create clear pathways. That could be to Arsenal’s first team if the player is good enough, or that of another club. The key is identifying the purpose and importance of the academy and those who come through it.

“In terms of Arsenal and their DNA, we have always been at the forefront of giving young players a chance,” academy manager Per Mertesacker said last April. “That’s the responsibility I feel. When (then Arsenal manager) Arsene Wenger told me, ‘This is your job. You have to prepare yourself for it but we believe you’re the right person’, that meant a lot to me. So to take that on means to follow the footsteps and the past but prepare for the future.”

It must be said again that this is not solely an Arsenal issue.

Mertesacker was speaking before the 2022-23 FA Youth Cup final which Arsenal Under-18s lost to their West Ham counterparts. Despite winning that trophy, West Ham had just three players aged 21 or under appear in the Premier League last season. Arsenal also believe they have the right people in place to aid these players’ development, in Mertesacker, Jack Wilshere (under-18s head coach) and Mehmet Ali (under-21s head coach), but a product of their collective work establishing themselves in the first team would help.

Some may not see this as an issue because Arsenal are challenging for the Premier League title. Granted, that should be the priority but here is an example of how good use of the academy has benefitted the club recently.

Joe Willock played 29 league games, with eight of them starts, at the ages of 19 and (mostly) 20 in the 2019-20 season. But by January 2021, he had made just two league starts that season. Not the type of midfielder Arteta wanted, but in need of exposure, he went on loan to Newcastle United in that winter window, while Arsenal signed fellow midfielder Odegaard on loan from Real Madrid. Come the summer, after he scored eight times for them in 14 league appearances, Newcastle made Willock’s loan permanent for £25m. Arsenal then signed Odegaard, who has become their club captain, for £30m a few days later.

Willock was a name Mertesacker mentioned, alongside Alex Iwobi and Emiliano Martinez, as examples of Arsenal’s best sales of recent times coming from the academy. That could be the same this summer, with Nketiah, Nelson and Smith Rowe all subject to interest and in need of regular football, but not all of them can go, with homegrown quotas needing to be met.

Not everyone can replicate Saka, but there has to be a moment to spark change in how Arsenal’s academy pathways and opportunities appear to work.

It may be when they next win a trophy, when a talent is too good to ignore (like Nwaneri), or even on a pre-season tour that will take place when most senior players will be resting after international tournaments that summer.

Whenever that moment is, it needs to be sooner rather than later.



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(Top photo: Arsenal Under-21 players last month; David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

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